In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Driving and Traffic Offenses

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Historical and Background Context
  • Links with Collision Involvement and Mainstream Crime

Criminology Driving and Traffic Offenses
Claire Corbett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0184


“Driving offenses” and “traffic offenses” are often treated as synonymous, though some jurisdictions distinguish them by considering “driving offenses” to involve only motorized vehicles or moving violations and “traffic offenses” to encompass a broader range. These latter include driving with inadequate driver or vehicle documentation, construction and use offenses (such as driving a vehicle with faulty tires), and parking and obstruction offenses. Together they can be broadly defined as violations of a jurisdiction’s traffic regulations contrary to relevant criminal and/or traffic laws for which one or more penalties are provided. Many such behaviors are proscribed internationally, though they may be constructed differently by country, and can vary by state, by municipality, and occasionally by city. Driving and traffic offenses here will be taken to exclude those usually classed as dishonesty offenses, like those concerning theft of a vehicle. Ironically, this latter is where most criminological interest has been centered, with relatively little attention paid to road traffic offending despite it being among the most commonplace types of global offending. Thus recourse will be made to work by traffic psychologists and multidisciplinary teams where criminological discourse is lacking. Data sources can present problems for scholars accessing early and contemporary research or statistics for trend analysis, and key starting points are highlighted in the Data Sources section. Driving and traffic offending behaviors are diverse, ranging from minor errors to deliberate and serious violations. The Key Characteristics subsections highlight the spread, featuring significant items linked with the main offense categories. A noteworthy earlier debate on possible links between offending on and off the road and with collision involvement seems largely to have been concluded by recent evidence-based studies, outlined in the section on Links with Collision Involvement and Mainstream Crime. Attempts to theorize traffic offending in order to help explain, understand, and remediate noncompliance have been considerably underexplored by criminologists, despite the massive harm caused. Conversely, psychologists have surged ahead with a range of individual-level theoretical frameworks, some of which have been applied in practice. The section on Theories and Theoretical Concepts considers contributions from both disciplines. Sources for evaluating the effectiveness of the extensive variety of countermeasures to encourage improved compliance with traffic laws are provided in the final Countermeasures section, which is divided into several subsections. Many countermeasures derive from a panoply of evidence-based studies. Yet operationalizing such research is often fraught with methodological difficulties. Policy and practice recommendations to reduce traffic offending are often made from promising findings, and some are implemented, though there remains a long way to go.

General Overviews

“Driving and traffic offenses” continues to be a neglected area of study among criminologists. Corbett 2003 is a key exception, providing an overview to the subject, exploring why it and its enforcement have rarely been taken seriously. It considers a range of driving and traffic offenses by drivers and theft offenses involving vehicles and provides a theoretical criminological lens through which to consider road crime. Notably, it surveys the role of wider society in road traffic offending. Cunningham 2008 offers an interesting and readable criminological and legal overview to explore several bad driving offenses, with a thought-provoking analysis of why relatively few drivers are prosecuted despite the huge global volume of road death and injury. Marsh and Collett 1986, by psychologists, provides a timeless, insightful, and wide-ranging account of our passion and attraction for the car. This makes a very good place to start exploring the psychological dynamics of driving behavior, including aggressive aspects. Evans’s account of traffic safety and factors that compromise it (Evans 2004) has not been to everyone’s taste, drawing critiques for its uncompromising stance from some commentators and praise from others. Despite that, it covers much ground and provides a useful overview, especially of US traffic policy and practice. For the graduate scholar perhaps approaching the topic from a scientific perspective, two volumes are suggested. Rothengatter and Huguenin 2004 provides in-depth information and scientific analysis of many topics, including traffic offenses, in a large edited volume of wide-ranging traffic safety research; both an earlier and a later edition are available. Similarly, Porter 2011 is an ambitious project worth exploring, comprising a huge edited handbook of discussions of diverse driving behaviors by top contributors. It provides useful reviews of the current state of knowledge in many matters linked with driving offenses, and is aimed at multiple audiences, including criminologists. All books in this section are available to purchase online, and journal articles are available by subscription.

  • Corbett, Claire. 2003. Car crime. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

    This textbook provides a general overview of key traffic offenses from a criminological perspective, encompassing their historical and legal contexts, their extent and trends, and means of prevention. Locates car crime as a product of car culture and explores why crime on the roads is rarely perceived as “real crime.”

  • Cunningham, Sally. 2008. Driving offenses: Law, policy and practice. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    This book outlines the law in England and Wales relating to careless and dangerous driving, drink-driving (termed “drunk driving in some jurisdictions”), and speeding offenses as of 2008. Importantly, it examines background policy and how the law is applied in practice through the filters of prosecutorial discretion and court interpretation. A comparative analysis is made with other jurisdictions, especially Sweden.

  • Evans, Leonard. 2004. Traffic safety. Bloomfield, MI: Science Serving Society.

    This book focuses on wide-ranging factors impacting on traffic safety and is included for its general overview of driver behaviors and characteristics that increase collision risk. Incorporates a critique of US road safety policy. Written in an engaging, accessible style suitable for all audiences.

  • Marsh, Peter, and Peter Collett. 1986. Driving passion: The psychology of the car. London: Cape.

    This book examines the multifaceted, psychological, and often passionate relationships existing between drivers and their cars. It explores the wide-ranging, cross-cultural symbolism of the car, including the car as “thrill machine” and “dangerous weapon,” and sheds light on aggressive driving in all forms. A fascinating read for all.

  • Porter, Bryan, ed. 2011. Handbook of traffic psychology. Waltham, MA: Academic Press.

    A handbook covering all key research areas in traffic psychology, with chapters on theory, methodology, factors that lead to types of driver offending, vulnerable road user groups, and countermeasures. Its thirty-five chapters offer a global and interdisciplinary perspective from international contributors. Particularly useful for the graduate student and traffic professional.

  • Rothengatter, Talib, and Ralphael Huguenin, eds. 2004. Traffic and transport psychology: Theory and application; Proceedings of the International Conference of Traffic and Transport Psychology, 2000. Amsterdam and Boston: Elsevier.

    This volume provides a comprehensive, detailed, and international overview of this diverse field, useful for the graduate student, with chapters focusing on driver risk acceptance, motivation, and attitudes—all implicated in driver offending. Includes chapters on gender differences, impairment, fatigue, and how to influence drivers through enforcement, training, and rehabilitation.

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